Is your teenager’s relationship healthy?

Violence can happen in teenage relationships, so make sure you know the signs and can help your child.

Abuse in relationships, including relationships between teenagers, can happen to men and boys, but it is much more likely to happen to women and girls. It also happens in same sex relationships.

Dangers of abuse in teen relationships

Physical and emotional abuse can have long-term effects on your child’s mental and physical health. It can lead to depression, drug and alcohol problems and eating disorders. Sexual abuse also has a risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Physical abuse can include hitting, kicking, punching, slapping, pushing, and pressuring or forcing someone into sexual activity. Emotional and verbal abuse involves a person: 

  • saying things that make their partner feel small or stupid,
  • pressuring their partner to do things they don’t want to do, including sexual things,
  • checking up on their partner all the time to find out where they are and who they’re with, or
  • threatening to hurt their partner or someone close to their partner, including pets.

Tink Palmer, a social worker who works with victims of abuse, points out that modern technology can be used for abuse too. “Mobile phones and the internet can be used in a very controlling way,” she says. “A boyfriend can text his girlfriend every 10 minutes when she’s out with her friends, just to distract her and make her aware that he’s always there.”

What you can do

Talk to your child about what’s OK and what’s not in a relationship. Some teenagers believe that violence is ‘just the way things are’, or is ‘just messing around’. Your child or their friends might believe this. Make sure they understand that violent or controlling behaviour is not OK, and that no one should put up with it.

Warning signs in your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend

These are signs you can keep an eye out for, and you can also make sure your child knows to look out for them. It’s a sign of controlling or violent behaviour if your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend:

  • gets extremely jealous,
  • monitors calls and emails, and gets angry if there isn’t an instant response, 
  • has trouble controlling his or her emotions, particularly anger, 
  • stops your child seeing or talking with friends and family as much as they’d like,
  • uses force during an argument,
  • blames others for his or her problems or feelings,
  • is verbally abusive, or
  • shows threatening behaviour towards others.

Some girls might believe that if their boyfriend gets jealous or checks up on them it means he loves them. This is not true. This kind of behaviour is not about love or romance, it’s about control and about your child's boyfriend making your child behave in the way he wants. Some boys might believe that controlling their girlfriend’s behaviour makes them more of a man. Make sure your child knows that using violence does not make someone a man.

Let your child know you will help them

Tell your child that they can always come to you, no matter what. Victims of abuse can feel ashamed, and believe (wrongly) that the abuse is their fault. Make it clear that being abused is never your child's fault, and that you will help them if they come to you.

You can also tell them about helplines, such as Childline (0800 11 11) or the NSPCC (0808 800 5000), which they can call if they don’t feel they can talk to you.

Signs that your child's boyfriend or girlfriend is abusive

“Teenagers can be secretive,” says Palmer. “You need to try to decide whether they're being secretive because they are naturally exerting their independence, or whether they're being secretive because they’re at risk of harm and can’t tell you.”

Signs of abuse can include your child: 

  • no longer hanging out with their circle of friends,
  • not doing as well at school, or skipping school altogether,
  • constantly checking their phone,
  • being withdrawn and quieter than usual,
  • being angry, and becoming irritable when asked how they are doing,
  • making excuses for their boyfriend or girlfriend,
  • having unexplained scratches or bruises, 
  • showing changes in mood or personality, or
  • using drugs or alcohol.

Some of these can be normal phases of growing up. However, if you’re worried about your child here’s what to do. 

Keep calm. “Try to talk to your child, but don’t confront them,” says Palmer. “Before you talk to them, think through what your concerns are and talk about it confidentially with someone such as your GP or a friend. This will help you to check out your own feelings and thoughts in advance so you won’t be too emotional when you talk to your child.”

Think about when to talk to them. “Don’t do it when they’ve just walked in the door, or when you’ve had a row,” advises Palmer. “Do it when things are calm, so that it’s not linked to another issue such as them coming home late or drunk.”

Find the words. Try saying you'd like to talk. Say you're worried about them and ask if everything's OK. “This shows them that it’s OK to talk, and lets them know you’re emotionally available for them,” says Palmer. “Even if they don’t talk to you at this point, they might go away and think about things, and talk to you later.”

Find out more about spotting the signs of abuse and how you can help at Spot teen abuse.

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